The New York Red Bulls might be playing for a home playoff game tonight, but the Columbus Crew are fighting for survival as they sit outside the playoff spots. To get an idea of what to expect from this Crew team with its backs against the wall, we spoke with Thomas Costello of SB Nation sibling site Massive Report.
The big news going into this game is that Cucho Hernandez, the Crew’s big midseason signing, will be missing the game through suspension. How does this change Caleb Porter’s approach and how shorthanded will it leave Columbus?
Honestly, I don’t think that the formation or the tactics change too much. When the Crew move to a 4-3-3 from their usual 4-2-3-1, midfielder Lucas Zelarayán isn’t as effective in the No. 10 role.
The Crew will use Erik Hurtado or possibly move Jacen Russell Rowe into the lineup from the MLS NEXT Pro side Crew 2. Both backup forwards have done well knowing they weren’t the long term starters when Hernández joined.
Each have goals in important moments with the senior team and I imagine Porter will employ them into the match. It won’t be like-for-like on the field, with Hernández’s speed hard to replace, but they’ll field a side that can still win, if they found the late goal allowance cure over the international break.
How confident are the Crew and fans heading into this difficult playoff chase in the final weeks? Does this feel like a team that belongs in the playoffs?
This is a question with two very different answers. The pulse of the folks who share their feelings on the team across the vast internet is less than positive.
After all, while Columbus has only lost twice in their last 19, the 11 draws (6 when Columbus had a lead) put the Crew in one spot below the playoff line with three to play.
Combine that with off field debate about the front office and supporters not liking what they’re hearing from Porter after a core of the 2020 MLS Cup is still here causes understandable frustration. Even with Hernández, the Crew only moved their points per match average from 1.29 to 1.42.
Within the team is a group who should, on paper, be happy with the way they’ve earned points consistently. The tone over the last few matches, especially giving up a late equalizer, past the allotted second half stoppage time, against Portland before the break has changed.
There’s a feeling of desperation and knowledge that missing the playoffs will lead to tough decisions across the board. Porter promised this year that if the Crew didn’t make the playoffs he’d sell his house. That off the cuff remark is looking closer to reality.
If the Crew beat the Red Bulls on Saturday, what will have to go right? What does the best version of Columbus look like?
To beat the Red Bulls, the midfield needs to be ready to take their knocks. New York will do all they can to ruin any momentum through midfielder Darlington Nagbe. Columbus will need either Artur or Aidan Morris to step up and counteract it.
Offensively, wingers Derrick Etienne Jr and Luis Díaz need to play a larger role in the offense without Hernández. Also, Etienne may not even start with former Minnesota United attacking midfielder Kevin Molino giving the Columbus offense a different dynamic of late.
If fullbacks Steven Moreira and Pedro Santos get room to move forward and overlap the wingers, it gives a lot more attacking options. Hurtado and Russell-Rowe each have a knack for scoring goals this year and they need to be fed to do that.
Defensively, giving up bad and late goals need to stop. That can be done with team defense and pressuring attackers, on top of smart play if they happen to go ahead at home. That means clearing the ball away sometimes, holding onto possession when they need to and close out a game.
I predict a 1-1 draw with the same XI the Crew used against Portland, minus Hurtado in for Hernández.